The World, Seen: On Beauty & the Movies
Issue   |   Tue, 02/05/2013 - 21:53
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Les Miserables’ combination of highly developed characters and the successful cohesion of multiple plotlines provides conceptual beauty.

Why would a person say that they like a movie?

Answers to this question come in two flavors: social and personal. On the one hand, one might say that she likes a movie to try to get other people to go see the movie (e.g. if a family member directed the movie). Or she might say it to prove that she is the kind of person who would like that kind of movie (e.g. if the person is self-conscious about her hipster identity). However, these explanations offer little insight into what about a movie the person likes, but rather largely illuminates what a person wants others to think that she likes.

On the other hand, one might say that she likes a movie because there is something about the movie that she appreciates, values or desires to experience another time. This personal liking of the movie might be broken into two broad categories: liking the movie visually or liking the movie conceptually. Each of these requires some development.

Think of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit.” Although Jackson’s decision to limit the movie to only the first third of the titular novel brought mixed reviews of the movie’s plot and development, the film was lauded for its breathtaking use of New Zealand’s landscapes. One might like “The Hobbit,” then, for nothing more than what I call its resplendence: the look of the things that the movie shows us. This is not to say that there are no other reasons to like “The Hobbit;” nevertheless, the movie’s resplendence would be sufficient reason to express liking.

However, there is also a second way to like a movie visually, in liking not what the movie shows, but the way in which the movie shows it. An excellent example of such a movie is Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” by far the smallest-budget film nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture this year. The movie is set in a ramshackle town deep in the Louisiana bayou, where there is no resplendence to be seen, and yet Zeitlin’s sharp presentation, his quick-moving camera panning over the bayou floor, displays a technical rigor that demands its viewers’ respect. Resplendence might describe what we see in a movie, but artistic mastery describes how we see it. Liking a movie visually might constitute liking the movie’s resplendence, or might constitute liking the movie’s mastery (or even both).

A similar division distinguishes two ways to like a movie conceptually. Just as one might like “The Hobbit” for its resplendent views, one might like Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” for the perceived importance or originality of its theme. Anderson is clearly trying to communicate some message through his curious story of childhood love prevailing against the countervailing forces of the adult world, and one might think that this message is really good or true or powerful. In all of these cases, the movie’s concept could be called meaningful, and we might like the movie for giving its meaning to us.

Finally, one might like a movie conceptually not for the meaning presented, but for the way in which the movie presents that meaning. Though it also deserves accolades in many of the other categories listed above, Tom Hooper’s “Les Miserables” is a good example of what I call a cohesive movie. Like most of the great plots of 19th century fiction, “Les Miserables” is a carefully constructed story of a small set of highly developed characters, each contributing as well-oiled gears to the greater machinery of the plot. Although the movie comprises two distinct plots — Javert’s hunt for Jean Valjean and the blossoming love of Marius and Cosette — a web of relationships, politics and happenstance intricately ties the two together, and one could never be extricated from the other. This cohesive structure provides the fourth and last ground for liking a movie, exhausting the possibilities of both visual and conceptual experience.

There is a surprisingly close parallel between these reasons to like a movie and one’s reasons for liking another person. Just as one might like a movie for its resplendence, one might like a person for his or her looks. The mastery of movies corresponds to a person’s self-presentation, be it fashion sense, cosmetic prowess or general style. To find a movie meaningful is very similar to liking a person’s personality, the Emersonian self that he manifests in their words or actions, be it liking him for his originality, importance, ethic or overarching message. And a movie’s cohesiveness matches closely with a person’s character, the melding of all of his decision mechanisms and beliefs and past experiences into a unified, comprehensive whole. Looks, presentation, personality and character neatly identify those characteristics of a person that one might like, whether the liking is sexual, friendly, respectful or awe-inspired.

Note too that one might be talking about any of these four characteristics of people when she calls a person beautiful. A person might be beautiful in sheer looks, in style and presentation, in being the kind of person that you think that people ought to be (original, say, or moral) or in having a perfect balance of character traits, each of which is harmonic with all the others. Calling a person beautiful is, in part, stating that you value them in at least one of these respects.

Our experiences with movies may not be as interactive as our experiences with other people, but we value each for just the same reasons. Movies can remind us of the physical resplendence of the world, besiege us with the meaningful and grand ideas of humankind and awe us with technical mastery and conceptual harmony, just as friendship can do the same. To say that you like a movie, then, is but to treat that movie as a fellow person, to value it accordingly and to desire that it be passed on to others, so that they might share in your valuing.

Previous articles from this column: On Beauty and Women, On Beauty and Advertising, On Beauty and Bedrooms, On Beauty and Big Bird, On Beauty and Snow

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